When the Words Breathe

A five-week beginner meditation class? Right now? In the middle of letting go…processing loss…the death of my wildest dreams?

Yes, please!

For the first class, I and fifty other beginners settled on the zafu cushions at the local Dharma Center and listened to the instructor’s lectures on mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, accepting the inevitability of suffering as a path to ending pain, and loving-kindness. I spent solid hunks of hours, eyes closed, mind quiet, awareness focused solely on the body and the breath. I knew only the contours of the present moment.

Inhale.
Exhale.
Notice: I am breathing.
Repeat.

Meditation was a cinch!

At the end of class, we novices received a homework assignment: meditate every day. For as many minutes as we wanted. At any time of day.

A week passed and we beginning meditators congregated at the Dharma Center yet again.

“How was the practice going at home?” the instructor inquired.

We all shrugged, hoping to pass off guilt as nonchalance because hardly anyone actually did the homework. Or maybe we did for a day or two, but then…well, a million factors fouled up repeat attempts. A nagging voice owled in the back of the head insisted: there wasn’t time, and besides, what good would it do, and wouldn’t it be more satisfying to binge The Grand Tour?

That was certainly my experience. Meditation didn’t fit in the morning routine. It didn’t slide anywhere into the afternoon. And before I knew it, 11pm haunted the clocks and no way was I going to stay up even later to sit and breathe.

Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow! Cross my heart.

And then…tomorrow’s 11pm arrived with no meditation accomplished.

I marveled at my wild, insatiable inability. Didn’t I feel fabulous after meditating in class? Yes. Didn’t I find a stronger, swifter ability to identify my negative, self-defeating thoughts and habits and work through them? Without a doubt.

So why couldn’t I make the practice happen? Why couldn’t I get it to stick? And why did this mystifying resistance feel so familiar?

Oooohhhh, riiiiight. I had the same trouble, the same reluctance, establishing a reliable daily writing practice.

Plenty of writers struggle with what the pros call “B-I-C,” or butt-in-chair” time. And just like the meditation practice, writing habits suffer from those myriad competing factors.

Time. Work. Family. Pets. Time. Add to all that the inner voice—the one made of turpentine and bolt rust—which hisses: What’s the point? It’s not like you’re any good. No one’s going to bother reading that drivel. Published anything lately? Or…ever?

And yet, in order to succeed (master writing skills, complete a project, or revise a story), the writer must create a solid writing habit. Likewise, if the novice meditator is to ever acquire equanimity (or just a smidgeon of enlightenment), she must develop the practice.

“Even the Dalai Lama practices meditating every day,” my instructor kindly coached.

With only a couple classes left and no still no devoted practice in place, I weaseled the conundrum, ripping it open to find the solution in its guts. Showing up to class was easy. I never missed it. Of course, I had paid for the class; whereas, I paid nothing to meditate at home. Was the solution a penalty jar to which I would pay a fine each time I failed to meditate? Probably not. It hadn’t helped the writing. Pay to take a writing class—hell, go in debt for an entire graduate program—but when the course is over, no one and nothing is around mandating you sit down and write…at home…for free.

What else made attending class so easy? What other factors made the act of showing up to meditate one night a week so intractable?

Well, the “classroom” in the Dharma Center always had the essential supplies set out and ready for use. A cushion was there waiting for me. Also, the instructor always had a topic to explore, a purpose for being there, a technique to try during the guided meditations. Finally, each class always concluded with a spoken reminder—an invitation—to return for more practice. “See you next week. Same time,” the instructor said.

As an experiment, I replicated these classroom facets at home. I set up my little meditation space: a cushion, a blanket, and a timer were now waiting for me. I then considered the purpose of my at-home meditation. I pondered the technique or focus I could apply. Then I designated my class time: the next day at such-and-such time. I spoke the invitation aloud. When the appointed time rolled around, to my delight, I showed up, I sat down, began to breathe, and listened as the bolt rust voice gurgled up and did its best to dissuade me.

I was neither surprised nor discouraged. The voice arose in the actual meditation class, too. The instructor knew it would and told us novices to simply notice it and return the attention to our breathing. As time expanded, the voice diminished. The timer dinged and I voiced the invitation to return, “Same time tomorrow.”

It’s been a few weeks since class ended, but my daily practice continues. It has solidified into my routine. And to my fellow writers, I offer this approach if you are struggling to pin down your own regular writing practice. Set up the writing space and set out the supplies. Make sure a chair, paper, and pen are always there, waiting for you to arrive. Plan your “lesson.” Consider what you will do when you arrive at the writing space. The purpose can be open (I will write) or specific (I will write chapter one). Or, you can experiment using an exercise from a craft book. Then appoint the “class time.” Tomorrow at 6 a.m. or 10:30 p.m. Maybe plug it into your calendar, as you might a real class.

Finally, when the time comes, arrive at your space. Take your supplies in hand. Notice the turpentine talk, and without buying into its narrative, simply write.

Write one word.
Write another.
Notice: I am writing.
Repeat.

Let the words flow as effortless, as limitless, as essential as breath.

Images (from top to bottom): “Meditation” by Worlds’ Direction (PD); “a bit clumsy” by Vicki DeLoach (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); “Meditation” by Scott Schumacher (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); and “Pen” by Jorge Letria (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

You’ve eaten…maybe prayed…definitely loved. Now it’s time to get magical in some very practical ways.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, creative inspiration

Summary: The sage and witty writer who brought you the worldwide bestseller, The Misadventures of a Messed-up Woman Traveling Through Three Countries in Three Months, All to Find the True Source of Joy (alternately and succinctly titled Eat, Pray, Love) returns to tell creative types and would-be creative types: own your soul and go make something today!

Critique: I will often recommend this as a craft book to writers, even though it does not tell them how to better hone the craft of writing. It will, however, help them craft a better soul more suited to the lifelong pursuit of writing!

While each “chapter” of this text is only a paragraph or three, the book feels densely packed with fresh perspectives on the value of and necessity for living creatively. For instance, Gilbert notes that as a species, humans took up art at least 40,000 years ago. Surprisingly, we only bothered with agriculture about 10,000 years ago. That means we found it more important to make attractive, superfluous items than to reliably feed ourselves!

Gilbert gives everyone a permission slip to be creative and express themselves. And I mean that literally and figuratively. She reminds readers to get off the tightrope slung between “I suck” and “I am greatest.” Stand firmer on the grounds of, “I am here.” That’s it. Neither bad, nor good. Just here. And while here, entitled to your own voice and vision.

She also surmises that if you feel the urge to create, but too often ignore it, then you’ll likely spend your time destroying something. A bank account, a relationship, or maybe your own self-esteem.

Just as in Eat, Pray, Love, readers will find here Gilbert’s signature style, which never strays far from nakedly honest, graciously humble, and fantastically witty. Her voice — whether on the page or recorded for audiobooks — is reassuring, kind, and invigorating. It’s a voice so comforting I’ve started using it whenever my negative, snitty inner critic begins to gabble on about what a joke I am. Before that crank gets on a roll, I remind myself that my inner critic is NOT my inner editor. My inner editor loves my work and it tells me (in Liz Gilbert’s charming, sparkling voice) how much it wants me to succeed!

So, is there a project you’re dodging? A dream you’ve harbored but never sailed on open waters? Maybe it’s time to stop making excuses and start making big magic.

Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

If you often yearn for 26-hour days — a bit more time to get done all that life requires and maybe, JUST MAYBE, a wink of sleep — this book is definitely for you!

Duhigg, Charles. Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (self-help-ish sans the tearful journal exercises)

Summary: Duhigg maps out the strategies successful people and industries use to attain utmost productivity. Defined here, productivity is ” the name we give our attempts to [best use] our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort.” In other words, Duhigg sets out to teach you how to succeed with less stress and struggle.

Critique: Author of the bestselling The Power of Habit (2012), Duhigg returns to deliver a fresh set of neurological schematics underscoring how to get the most optimal performances out of our brains. As always, he does a masterful job weaving technical exposition and compelling scenes involving the many people he profiled and interviewed while researching the book.

For example, you may be right in the middle of a based-on-true-events plane crash scene when Duhigg hits the pause button and delivers some bit of crucial data on the brain in times of extreme stress. The suspense mounts and just when you think you can’t take it, he hits play and resumes the gripping drama. The result: reading this book is lot like watching The Big Short.

Students studying how to compose creative nonfiction would do well to study Duhigg’s techniques.

Besides a good craft study, Duhigg’s latest book outlines some unconventional approaches to productivity all based on the latest behavioral and neuroscience research. Evidently, there IS a wrong way and a right way to make a to-do list. Most of us do it the wrong way, resulting in scads of wasted time, incomplete projects and missed deadlines–not to mention the scree of eroded self-confidence. Also, if you want to get through that nebulous inbox of unanswered emails, you’ll have to learn to reply like a U.S. Marine. Instead of setting the usual SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timelined), set stretch goals. Finally, once you understand why fear is an intrinsic part of innovating new ideas, you can harness it to intensify your creativity and hit your deadlines and benchmarks. In other words, if you’re a writer, you’ll want this book on your shelf.

 

Chef’s Table (hint: look under the table)

chefs-tableChef’s Table. Produced by David Gelb, Andrew Fried, et al. Boardwalk Pictures, City Room Creative, FINCH, 2015.

Genre: docuseries (cooking…and so much more)

Summary:The promoters and producers would have you believe that every episode of Chef’s Table profiles one of the world’s leading chefs for 45-55 minutes accompanied with pleasurably slow, sensuous, sumptuous shots of gourmet cuisine. And on the surface (dare I say, on the tabletop), that is entirely true. The other crucial aspect featured in every show exists under that surface and feeds a powerful extension of creation, much as nitrogen, roots, humus, and earthworms feed the organic bounty of the globe!

Critique: This show boasts a quiver of assets. Its tone is elegant, backed by sexy food montages soundtracked with classical music. Its cast of top chefs truly are geniuses and savants. Its topics are sophisticated at intelligent: ethical food supply, cultural restoration through food diplomacy, food as interpretive music, dance, even fairy tale! In short, this is not a show for folks who want to just “Netflix and chill.” It is too compelling to just be background ambiance.

nature-as-artist

“Nature as an artist-2” by zeeveez.

Also, I’d wager there are few amorous partners out there brash enough to compete with the sinful delectables served up on the show!

The core ingredient that really sizzles across every episode — and the reason why I am featuring it in the place of a recommended book — is its subtext. That which is happening under the tablecloth.

Writing students would do well to study how most of the episodes talk on the blatant surface about one thing, while showing, hinting at, suggesting, enlightening another message deeper down. Many budding writers have a hard time with subtext. They struggle to notice it, let alone reproduce it. But subtext is essential to good storytelling because it invites the reader (or viewer) to participate with the text, rather than passively witness.

In a quickndirty example of subtext, I always point to the glorious scene in The Incredibles (2004), when the AI monster ball is shredding through the city. Frozone is ready for action, opens the secret compartment where he keeps his super suit only to find it missing….


On the surface, the conversation that follows between Frozone and his wife is all about the suit’s location, but underneath that, this couple is really squabbling over the power dynamic of their relationship. Who’s the boss, or who wears the (super) pants? That element is made clear in the subtext, or in what is not being openly said. Frozone does NOT say: Honey, you are always undermining me. You never take my job as a super hero seriously.

Nonetheless, that is exactly what gets communicated to viewers who are actively piecing together these details.

So what is Chef’s Table putting in its subtext? The treacherous, arduous, daunting path of the artist or creator. The process by which one learns to trust in his or her own creative spark and allows it to burn wild. The armor one puts on to protect the feral soul from the slings and arrows of doubters and skeptics.

broken-window

“Soul” by Marcell Schwarz

It quietly illustrates how creators must apprentice to a master, copy technique until skills are perfected and ingrained, and finally break free from instruction in order to forge what is new, unique, and true to the self. And most importantly, the subtext illuminates how to attain resiliency — that seemingly magical ability to weather downturns, to grin and bear it, to turn failure into success.

((Now, after you’ve watched a few episodes, you may say, “Hey, these elements can’t be subtext because the chef’s are talking about them in their interview narratives.” I will concede that the chef’s are uttering these insights and truths; however, the directors have arranged these statements to take a backseat to the stunning food cotillions and the shimmering musical fanfares. Thus, the “message” of the show is embedded. It is arranged underneath its more primary elements. And, I further argue these themes are subtext because so many other reviews completely overlooked them and knocked the show for lacking anything deeper and being little more than foodie porn.))

Finally, I recommend this show not only to budding writers in need of a subtext booster shot, but also to writers and creators going through a moment of crisis with their work. Those who have suffered a dent in self-confidence and ability. I give you permission: take a night off to “Netflix and fulfill.” Trust me when I say you’ll hunger for more than food.

Get Lost: A Story for Writers Who Haven’t Found Their Way

When a girl goes camping all by herself, as I did this past weekend, she is bound to undergo at least one significant spiritual transformation, or discover at least one profound truth about her inner self.

I will share with you one of the profundities I discovered—maybe the greatest one: I do not own a keychain bottle opener.

Whenever I have gone camping in the past and wanted to open a beer, I grabbed my darling’s keys and k’chih! I drove three hours to Utah, picked my campsite, assembled my lunch, and pulled the beer out of the cooler before I realized I could not open it.

Woman with bottle

Image from beernexus.com.

Never fear! I did not let this minor packing snafu stop me from enjoying that beer! A beer bought specifically to celebrate my first time camping all alone.

Lunch consumed and beer guzzled, I set about to camp. I erected the tent. Chopped firewood. I even managed to attach the propane tank to the cooking stove without blowing anything up! I was so jazzed that I took off the next day for a hike!

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Image my own.

The trail I selected roved up and down through a couple wind- and water-carved canyons. The tops of the canyons were deserts, while their crevices frilled with miniature forests. Because this was a National Park (specifically Canyonlands), the trail was marked at intervals with stacked rock formations, or cairns. I roved, drunk on the sights of red sandstone cliffs topped with white limestone scallops. I was giddy from all my outdoorsy prowess, despite all the horrific scenarios I expected (and imagined in gory detail) would befall me. Punishment for attempting something so daunting all on my own. But there I was, creative problem-solver and fearless explorer, confidently striding through the rugged wilderness, negotiating a strenuous trail. Alone. Independent. Powerful. Unstoppable!

The brief winter afternoon was well spent by the time I about-faced on the trail and started the trek back to my car. I maneuvered the naturally terraced rock steps leading to the bottom of a canyon. I gave a quick glance to the positions of the cairns ahead, and then returned my focus to my feet. I was especially good at tripping in shoes—no doubt because most of my agility training happens barefoot in the Aikido dojo. My feet do not know how to keep me alive with shoes on.

20151114_123516

Image my own.

Eventually, I began to notice all the shattered bits of erosion littering every nook and cranny of the canyon. I was struck by how the cliffs looked so majestic from a distance, but up close were all destruction and crumble. These massive geological castles were actually has beens. Ruins.

That notion resonated deep. I could look so confident, so proficient to my friends, my family, even to strangers who stood at a distance. But if they got too close, they would no doubt see just how broken and crumbled I was. Controlling my small universe and all the people in it was how I had formerly kept everyone at an appropriate distance, away from all my debris. I wanted—needed—to keep it all hidden from view.

Not so for these mountains. Not so for all these crumbling cliffs and ridges. They displayed their messes, their sloped mounds of talus, like the creased and pleated skirts of a ball gown. And why not? What were those talus piles and those shards of rubble under my feet but the steady signs of progress. Change. Transformation.

What had those shards and granules been before they were part of mountains? Some might have been magma. Some might have been pyroclasts, or flying rocks. Some were undoubtedly beach sand, for that is what the Needles of Canyonlands are: ancient, compacted, eroding spires of a beach. And what were those sands before that? Maybe some hard candy the ocean sucked on gummed until it found what was truly sweetest at the core, and thus spat the sugary sands ashore. And now that they were rocks and granules, they would travel who knew where in the world, carried in water, wind, human pocket, or animal dander. No matter where they went, they would inevitably keep turning into something else.

How wonderful be in a constant state of flux. Slow, yes—but continual. Almost imperceptible, yes—but happening nonetheless.

“I am changing!” they shout. “Watch me, if you dare!”

No wonder the mountains and canyons put their metamorphosis on display. Change was remarkable.

I was so titillated in that moment that I almost shouted in chorus with the canyons, cliffs, and mountains: I, too, am changing! I am eroding and growing at the same time! I am thirty five and in therapy (for the first time) dealing with my codependency issues (also for the first time because I never realized I had a problem).

But here I was, a person addicted to other people—addicted to caretaking others while neglecting myself—spending time alone in the wilderness. Caring for myself. Keeping myself warm, fed, and hydrated. Creatively solving my own problems (who needs a bottle opener, anyway)! The realization that my abilities were numerous paired up with the notion that my imperfect body was a gorgeous container for my imperfect, yet beautiful, soul. This epiphany shackled my feet in place, and for a long time all I could do was stand at the bottom of a canyon next to pipsqueak stream, and point my teary face up to the sun.

When I was ready to resume my hike, I could not locate a single cairn in any direction. They were gone.

The instant you realize you are lost, a hot, heavy pressure blankets the back of your neck. You can no longer hear anything outside your own skin. The world sort of tilts. No, not tilts. It transposes in an instant, like a picture you’re editing into Photoshop. One-click flip! What was left becomes right and what was down becomes up.

The inner compass of my body whooshed around and I become a snow globe of directions.

Let’s see. I had been walking north because the sun was on my left. To the west. Right? West is left on a map? But had the sun really been on my left or had it been on my right? I couldn’t really remember. Now it was dead ahead. No matter. I knew that the trailhead where my car was parked was to the…north. No—east! It had to be east. Right? I mean left. I mean…shit!

I tried backtracking—or at least meandering in the direction I was pretty sure was backwards. No bushes, no cascading rock stairways looked at all familiar, memorable, or remarkable.

I fumed. How could I let this happen? How could I, at my age, get lost? And so quickly, too!

Written out, it seems as though I plunged headlong contemplating those shattered rocks for hours, but really, it was no more than a minute or two.

compassBut that was enough time. In fact, that’s all the time it takes to lose your way in your own life. You think you know where you’re headed. You think you see the way all set out and marked. You get cozy. You get distracted. And then the next thing you know, the cairns and waymarkers have vanished. You.are.lost.

Lost. Off track. Misplaced. Displaced. Off course. That summed up the entirety of 2015 for me. I thought I knew where my life was going. I thought I knew a few of the things coming next. Marriage. Honeymoon. Celebration. The holidays. A new year. A new me. The little cairns were all there. All plotted on my calendar, getting ever closer.

And then, I got cozy. I got distracted with a new job that paid little and fed lots to my addiction to others. I over-invested. I let my writing wither. I left my beloved partner to wither, too. And when I finally looked up, everything my life had been was gone. Everything I had had. Had enjoyed. Had expected. Had taken for granted. Had known. Had loved.

Talus. That was all I had left. How fitting that I was now blindly roving between walls of talus.

The thicket of bushes before me abruptly shook hard, all rustle and fuss. I jumped back, all defense and gasp. Three deer, all does, trotted out of that thicket and into a clearing where they could watch me with their glistening black marble eyes. Then, before I would whisper, “Hello,” they bounded away, light as packing peanuts on narrow hooves that thudded heavy has jackhammers. I felt their departure more than I heard it.

For a moment, I stood dumb. Then I giggled.

“Wow!” I confessed to the canyon’s wind-carved ear arches. And to think, I would not have seen those lovely animals had I not wandered off the trail. Had I not gotten lost…

cairnThe irony made me chuckle, but the notion swiftly evolved. What if I was never “off track”? What if my life—any life, for that matter—had but one track it could follow? No matter what forks and branches arose, no matter what choices were made, the way I was going was the way my life needed to go. I could relinquish any regrets for the roads I chose not to travel in the past. Those paths I did not pursue. What were they but ghosts? And I could release any frustration surrounding my current trajectory because to get cantankerous with my present position was to yearn for forks, branches, and options that had not yet come my way. The specters of future roads not yet built.

How much of my life had I spent pining for those ghosts and specters? How much had I been missing in my present reality—what gifts and splendors like those deer—when I yearned for where I was not and where I could not be?

And where else could I be but right here? Right now. And if I was always right here right now, then maybe I was always precisely where I needed to be. Always on track. Always changing. Eroding. Rebuilding. Transforming. Never lost.

I stared at the deer tracks embroidered in the ribbons of sand zippered with a slender stream. The tracks curved over the strange grid of hiking boot tread. Not the tread of my hiking boots, but someone else’s. Many someones! The boot prints traveled several crooked yards, then disappeared where the sand gave way to the rocky carpet of the canyon floor. Also precisely where a cairn sat sun tanning. Not far off was another. Another. And another.

The way.

Had it been there all along? Or had it only appeared when I was ready to see it?

I suspect the answer to either question is yes.